The Ford Festiva, a Subcompact and Global Kia by Mazda (Part I)

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Today we embark on the important and worldwide history of a hatchback subcompact. Your author referenced it last week in Part I of our Kia Great Cars series, and now it’s time for the promised full coverage of Rare Rides! Manufactured in various locations around the world, our vehicle in question has lived a long life and had no less than 10 identities over its impressive 17-year span. We’re gonna party, karamu, Festiva, forever.

The story of the Festiva began in the 1970s, when Ford increased its stake in the likeable and healthy Japanese automaker, Mazda. The relationship between the two companies began in the latter part of this decade. Mazda had been in dire straits financially since the 1960s, and Ford bought its property on the cheap. Ford’s first investment was a paltry seven percent stake in the Hiroshima company.

The relationship deepened in 1979 when Ford poured in some more money and increased its stake in Mazda to 24.5%. It was time to align for the two companies when it came to an all-new subcompact offering, as Ford’s product was obsolete and Mazda had some free design capability.

As for Ford, the subcompact offerings were split into Pinto for the North American market and Fiesta for Europe and other locations. The Pinto had a terrible reputation and was near the end of its life having been on sale since 1971.

The West German and British-built Fiesta was a bit newer, but wouldn’t last much longer in its 1970s first generation form. On sale since 1976, German examples were available in North America between 1978 and 1980 The first Fiesta was generally well received, especially in North America because the Pinto alternative was crap.

The Fiesta continued in production until 1983 in its initial version, before being replaced by the Fiesta Mark II. But this Fiesta, like the first, was intended more for European consumption and would not run as a world car as well as something designed for this purpose. Hold that thought.

At Mazda, there was only one subcompact car in the history of the company, and it was only on a technical point. Called the Carol 600, the coupe and sedan were slightly larger versions of the Kei R360 coupe, also sold as the Carol. Its 600 name was due to its 586 cc engine, and it went from Kei to subcompact because it had bigger bumpers. Inside, the space was the same as the small car.

The “larger” Carol 600 was of a higher tax bracket and proved unpopular as it offered no advantages over the Kei version other than a larger engine. The 600 was on sale for two model years before being withdrawn from production, with around 8,800 sold. Mazda didn’t make another subcompact until 1986. Back to Ford.

Since the Pinto was finished and the Fiesta was not intended for North American consumption, Ford would be without a subcompact offering for a few years. In 1981, the compact Escort became the replacement for the subcompact Pinto, which straddled the size classes with its size. Replacing the Fiesta in North America would be a true subcompact.

In Europe, the Fiesta Mark II would continue to be the smallest car offered in the supermini category, while the European Escort was in its third generation and was considered a small (compact) family car. The newly created subcompact would not be sold in Europe but would be sold ultimately by Ford Australia in this market.

The need for the product analyzed, Ford approached Mazda with its considerable participation in the early 80s and asked the people of Hiroshima to develop a new subcompact car. The name Ford chose was Festiva, surely in hopes that the reputation and success of the existing, namesake Fiesta would rub off on its new import. The Mazda-developed vehicle was a practical three-door square hatchback shape.

Although it wore a Ford badge, it was immediately clear that the Festiva was a Japanese design. Its general theme was “practical box”. An unadorned fascia featured two square composite headlights, which were flush with the grille and used amber corner markers. The grille in between was body-colored and featured a very simple singular bar with a Ford emblem in the center. The bumper was finished in rubber gray (or body color on higher trims) and had almost no decoration other than two turn signals.

The hood had minimal decoration and only a modest power bulge that faded before the leading edge of the grille. The top half of the Festiva’s hood had a single raised detail, in the form of a centrally placed black plastic windshield spray nozzle.

The wings featured a single line of type that ran straight to the end of the short body. It was interrupted by a very obvious fuel door on the driver’s side and a black door handle that was removed from the Ranger. The side rub strips continued from the front to the rear wheel arch and featured a contrasting ribbon stripe inside. They were black on lower-end models, but body-colored if spicier trim.

At the rear, the tall greenhouse met a simple tailgate for maximum practicality and visibility. The pillars all around were thin, a nod to the rather lax safety standards of the 80s. There was little decoration on the back, just a simple set of badges, rear wiper and bumper with a cutout for the small exhaust pipe.

As you would expect on such a class of car, the interior of the Festiva was built at a price and used a less is more design theme. In front of the driver was a two-spoke Mazda steering wheel, and beyond that a very simple set of gauges. Speedometer, temperature and fuel were the only gauges offered. No tachometer was present, even with a manual transmission. Elsewhere, the cabin had very simple HVAC sliders, a very simple stereo, and no center console. Between the flat bucket seats were the gear lever and the parking brake, and nothing else.

The Festiva’s seats were fairly unadorned, although some examples used a more upscale corduroy as the seat material. The door panels were similarly simple, covered with minimal padding and finished largely in vinyl. Seat belts were everyone’s least favorite type: automatic and door-mounted for the shoulder, with a manual lap belt. In general, comfort and convenience features have been kept to a minimum, to ensure the lowest possible price.

There’s not much to say about the super simplistic Festiva’s exterior and interior styling. We’ll end there and learn about the engineering and mechanics of the Festiva in Part II. We will also cover its important world premiere.

[Images: Ford, YouTube]

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